5- hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), also known as oxtitriptan, is a naturally occurring amino acid, that is sold over the counter in several parts of the world as a dietary supplement. It is said to help with depression, sleep, and appetite control.
In this blog piece, we will discuss what 5-HTP is used to treat, how it works, common side effects, and who should avoid taking the supplement.
What is 5-HTP?
5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid, meaning it is an amino acid that your body is able to create on its own. Your body is then able to turn 5-HTP into serotonin, so we can say that 5-HTP is a building block for serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, meaning it serves as a signal between your nerve cells. Serotonin is essential to our bodies since it is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, affects sleep, appetite, and memory. In fact, serotonin is often the target of many anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. Therefore, if serotonin is so essential to our body, and 5-HTP acts as a building block to serotonin, it means that 5-HTP is extremely important as well.
Since 5-HTP is essential and can increase the level of serotonin in our bodies, several countries began manufacturing 5-HTP and selling it as a dietary supplement. It is currently sold in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The dietary supplement is an attempt to mimic our natural 5-HTP that our bodies create, increase levels of it, and therefore increase levels of serotonin.
How is 5-HTP made?
5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid and so is created as a byproduct of a certain protein in our brain. Proteins are made up of amino acids. When our brain breaks down proteins, amino acids are created. Therefore, when the protein L-tryptophan is broken down, amino acid 5-HTP is created. This is the natural production of 5-HTP that our body is able to perform on its own.
5-HTP, however, can also be made synthetically. This is how it is available as a dietary supplement you can purchase over the counter. The way 5-HTP is produced commercially is from the seeds of an African plant. This African plant is known as Griffonia simplicifolia.
How does 5-HTP work?
Natural 5-HTP is found in our brains and after several steps, the brain turns it into serotonin. Commercially produced 5-HTP works similarly by increasing the levels of 5-HTP in the brain, which therefore increases levels of serotonin. Our bodies depend on serotonin to help us regulate common functions like mood, sleep, appetite. There are certain conditions such as depression in which levels of serotonin are altered, decreased specifically. The thought is that if we are able to increase levels of 5-HTP in the brain, we can increase levels of serotonin in the brain.
What can 5-HTP be used for?
Even though 5-HTP is available to purchase over the counter, you should always consult your health professional beforehand. Certain medications should not be taken with 5-HTP and your doctor can help guide you through this. Medicinal use of 5-HTP is also not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is therefore used as a natural supplement and is often given in conjunction with certain medications or as a trial prior to starting other medications. Furthermore, while there is possible evidence that 5-HTP is beneficial for depression, there are other uses for 5-HTP for which there is not yet sufficient evidence of benefit. Some individuals with these conditions still choose to take 5-HTP. Again, this is a conversation to be had with your health professional to come to a decision that is best for you.
There are several possible uses for 5-HTP. These include:
· Tension Headaches
· Cerebellar ataxia
· Menopausal symptoms
· Alzheimer’s disease
Who should not take 5-HTP?
While 5-HTP is considered to be a natural supplement, there are individuals with certain conditions or individuals on specific medication that should not take 5-HTP. Again, discuss with your health professional to see if 5-HTP can have an effect on your current condition or medications.
Those advised against taking 5-HTP are:
· Individuals currently taking or who have recently taken other medications that also increase serotonin. Some examples of such medications are antidepressants such as those falling under the category of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs).
· Individuals taking carbidopa, a medication for Parkinson’s disease
· Individuals with Down syndrome since studies have shown those with Down syndrome having taken 5-HTP were at risk for seizures
· Individuals who are pregnant or breastfeeding since there is not enough evidence about the safety of 5-HTP in this population
· Individuals scheduled for surgery since surgery may increase levels of serotonin in and of itself
What are the potential side effects of 5-HTP?
There are several side effects of 5-HTP that are important to be aware of. This include the following:
· Sexual problem
· Muscle pain
· Vivid dreams
· Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS): a rare but severe side effect which causes muscle pain and changes in your blood
If taking 5-HTP, regularly monitor yourself for the above side effects. Tell your doctor right away if you are experiencing any of them, specifically muscle pain and tenderness as this may be a sign of Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome.
Get immediate medical help if you are experiencing any of the following as it may mean the levels of serotonin in your body is too high:
· Fast heart beat
· High blood pressure
· Rigid muscles
· Difficulty breathing
· Red colored urine
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about 5-HTP:
1. Why is 5-HTP not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?
5-HTP is not FDA approved because it is served as an herbal or dietary supplement. It is not a medication. There have not been enough clinical trials done for the FDA to approve or disapprove of the use of this supplement.
2. Do I need a prescription to get 5-HTP?
Since 5-HTP is not a medication, and is instead an herbal supplement, a doctor’s prescription is not needed. It is available in several countries as an over the counter supplement meaning you can simply purchase it in a health store or pharmacy. That being said, it is always helpful to consult your health professional prior to starting a new supplement. They will be able to advise you whether or not other medications you are on can be affected by the supplement.
3. Is 5-HTP and antidepressant medication?
5-HTP is not an antidepressant. There are several antidepressants available for which a prescription from a health professional is required. 5-HTP is similar to an antidepressant in that they have the same goal of increasing serotonin levels in the brain. They do so, however, very differently. Therefore, 5-HTP is considered an herbal or dietary supplement, not a medication.
4. Is 5-HTP good for anxiety?
Increased serotonin levels are thought to help with anxiety. 5-HTP is a supplement that can help increase levels of serotonin. Therefore some individuals will take this supplement to help with anxiety. It is important to note, however, that 5-HTP is not a medication for anxiety. It is simply a supplement that can potentially help minimize some symptoms of anxiety.
5. What are the possible side effects of 5-HTP?
Possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, vivid dreams. A rare but serious side effect is Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). In EMS, individuals experience severe muscle pain and an increase in eosinophils (a specific type of cell in the blood). It is a severe condition and a health professional must be contacted immediately.
6. How long does 5-HTP stay in my system?
5-HTP has a short half-life, meaning it gets less active quicker than some other drugs. The half-life of 5-HTP ranged from 2.2-7.4 hours in certain research studies.
7. How long does 5-HTP take to work?
It is said that two to three weeks of taking the supplement are required to notice a beneficial effect.
8. I am taking another antidepressant medication prescribed by my doctor. Can I take 5-HTP in addition to this?
It depends which antidepressant medication you are currently on. Prior to starting 5-HTP with any medication, it is best to speak to your doctor. Those on SSRIs or MAOIs, two categories of antidepressants, should not take 5-HTP. SSRIs and MAOIs increase the level of serotonin in your brain. 5-HTP increases the level of serotonin as well. Too much increase in serotonin can lead to serotonin syndrome, a very serious condition during which individuals can experience difficulty breathing, seizures, muscle rigidity, and even death.
9. Why is someone with down syndrome not supposed to take 5-HTP?
5-HTP is not recommended for those with down syndrome because it has been linked to seizures.
10. I am getting surgery and am taking 5-HTP. How many weeks prior to surgery should I stop taking 5-HTP?
Anything that has the ability to increase serotonin, should not be taken or performed while on 5-HTP. This is because it can lead to too much serotonin which will overwhelm your system and cause serious side effects. Surgery has the ability to increase serotonin levels. Therefore, 5-HTP should be stopped at least two weeks prior to your scheduled surgery.
11. I am pregnant. Is it safe for me to take 5-HTP?
5-HTP has not been studied in pregnant patient populations. Therefore. the risks of 5-HTP on the child are unknown. Always discuss with your doctor first before introducing new supplements into your routine.
12. I am breastfeeding. Is it safe for me to take 5-HTP?
5-HTP has not been studied in breastfeeding patient populations. Therefore, the risks of 5-HTP being transferred through breast milk are unknown. Always discuss with your doctor first before introducing new supplements into your routine.
13. Can 5-HTP help me lose weight?
5-HTP and the effect it has on serotonin, can cause someone to feel a sensation of being full. 5-HTP may cause appetite suppression which may lead to weight loss.
When is the best time to take 5-HTP, in the morning or night?
A side effect of 5-HTP may be drowsiness so it is better to avoid taking the supplement before driving or operating machinery. Therefore, many individuals choose to take the supplement in the evening.
Want to learn more about 5-HTP? Try these books!
5-HTP: The Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia
Written by a naturopathic doctor, the book goes into detail about what 5-HTP is, it’s relationship with serotonin, and possible clinical benefits
5-HTP: Nature’s Serotonin Solution
This book also goes into detail about 5-HTP, how it works with serotonin, and what effects serotonin can have on our body. This includes serotonin’s ability to effect depression, weight gain, insomnia, and anxiety
Have more questions or comments about 5-HTP? Post Below!
5-HTP WebMD. 2019
5 Science-Based Benefits of 5-HTP Healthline. 2018